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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 5436

Senator WATERS (QueenslandLeader of the Australian Greens in the Senate) (10:24): [by video link] I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Paid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies) Bill 2021. This bill would ensure employer related paid parental leave is available to parents affected by stillbirth. Stillbirth, miscarriage and infertility are issues that affect so many families and, sadly, are issues which continue to be considered taboo. The silence around the issue can compound the grief, trauma and isolation experienced by many families.

I will only speak briefly on this bill today to make space for those in the chamber who have personal experience with the profound loss of a stillborn baby; my heart goes out to all of them. I'd like to acknowledge all of the senators in this chamber who have experienced stillbirth. In particular, I thank Senator Keneally and others for continuing to talk about stillbirth as a public health issue, a mental health issue and a social issue.

I'd also like to acknowledge the work done by my colleague Senator Janet Rice on the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education. A few years ago, that select committee recommended that employment laws be reviewed to ensure that provisions for stillbirth and miscarriage are clear and consistent across employers and meet international best practice and that legislative entitlements to paid parental leave are unambiguous in recognising and providing support for employees who have experienced stillbirth.

The profound grief caused by the loss of a child can be as all-consuming for parents as the experience of having a child born healthy. For many, returning to work when they expected to be on parental leave can exacerbate their trauma. Many grieving parents are unable to return to work and bear the costs of extended periods of unpaid leave, part-time work or unemployment on top of medical costs and counselling expenses.

Stillbirth is not about numbers and it's not about dollars, but a study by PwC for the Stillbirth Foundation demonstrates the impact of failing to provide parents affected by stillbirth with adequate leave to support their recovery. That study estimated that the cost of absenteeism by parents and family members, presenteeism—a loss of focus, enthusiasm or inclusion while at work—and loss of productivity from bereaved parents leaving the workforce was $368 million.

The government's Paid Parental Leave scheme recognises the need for support and provides parents who have experienced stillbirth with the same PPL entitlements that they would have been entitled to had the unthinkable not happened. It's time for employer-paid parental leave schemes to do exactly the same.

In addition to recommendations around parental leave, the select committee made a suite of suggestions to improve support for families who have experienced stillbirth, including improved data collection to support research, facilitating stillbirth autopsies and investigations, national guidelines for hospitals and health centres on best practice, support for bereaved families, developing education and awareness-raising materials and a national action plan to reduce stillbirth. Implementation of the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan will go a long way to addressing those objectives.

It's critical that society start to talk more openly about stillbirth, miscarriage and infertility and provide support for those affected, including partners and family members. The Greens support an expedited rollout of the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan.

We also support continuity-of-care models, particularly the Birthing on Country and Birthing in Our Community initiatives, which have been shown to reduce stillbirths and infant mortality in First Nations communities.

Last year the Greens championed the removal of the unfair discrepancy in eligibility for stillbirth payments, and we welcome the government's decision to finally adopt that reform.

We support giving leave entitlements to workers affected by miscarriage. We support this private member's bill today to remove barriers for parents who experience stillbirth from accessing employer-paid parental leave entitlements.

Whilst we're talking about parental leave, I might just add—slightly off topic—for those families who are lucky enough to have a baby born healthy, we do need to do more to align paid parental leave with international expectations. We need to remove the discriminatory impacts on families where the birth parent is the higher income earner, because it's 2021; it happens these days. We need to support families to share leave more equitably. Parents should be entitled to a minimum of 26 weeks of paid leave, and more action should be taken to encourage and facilitate fathers to share the leave and the care load.

With those brief comments, out of respect for those in the chamber who have more experience with this issue than I do, I commend this bill to the chamber. I thank all senators for their work on this very important topic.